Monday, January 26, 2015

Re-set the classics

There's a nice interview out there to Iain Abernethy, a great karate practitioner. He's a great worker of kata, and I don't mean a performer. And his works on the interpretation and on bunkai are important.

And yet...

I still think we're doing it wrong. Yes, that includes Iain and me. And, yes, he's much better.

In the second part of the interview, his interviewer, Jesse Enkamp, says:

And unless people are on this same level of understanding about Karate, it’s hard to even discuss kata! Here’s another dilemma: In ye olde days, people learned “bunkai” first, and then proceeded to practice the solo pattern (kata) by themselves, just as a memory aid. Today, it’s the complete opposite: We learn the kata first, and then grope in the dark for an understanding of the moves (bunkai). How can we reverse this process? Should we even?

Iain's answer is, by the way, "sort of". Read it.

I'm going to go further.

If we don't understand the kata, and if our styles have been severely influenced by the upheavals of the XXth century, and if technique (or bunkai, if you prefer) came before kata, should we still practice these same kata? Should we, instead, create new ones?

Ah... I just felt a great disturbance in the Chi, as if millions of couch shihans suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.

How dare I!?

Well, I dare because kata are a language. And if we've lost the meaning, the ways to properly interpret it, we have about the same problem Jews had when they tried to resurrect Hebrew, but worse. As far as I understand it, they did have some people who still spoke the old version; we may not. We do have excellent teachers, but the chain of transmission for, say, Naihanchi is lost.

Now, these kata were not created by some sort of angel. Satori, in those cases were it is claimed, is not something out of this world. These kata were created by people who knew their style well, who needed a way to remember, and practice, moves. Who were, often, good enough teachers to have passed the information down to a next generation [*].

So... These days we have great practitioners, great instructors, people with good medical knowledge (at least by XVIth-XIXth century standards)... People like Abernethy himself, like the new batch of Western practitioners, like some Eastern ones. People who've "cross trained" in other styles, been influenced by them... like the masters of old. If karate was influenced by the Chinese (duh!), maybe even Siam / Thailand... why can't it be influenced, these days, by the constellation of styles? Back then, "influence" meant a stranded traveller, a lesson in secret, spying... These days, a trip to a seminar.

Where is the Sanchin, or the Naihanchi, that includes lessons from Muay Thai, from BJJ, from Western boxing, from Judo? Back again from White Crane? From Xing Yi? Silat? Were is the kata that condenses a whole modern system? If Naihanchi was the "book" for a whole style, why can't we create our books? Why do we need so and so many kata for black belt? Were is OUR kata? Have we become soldered onto kata we just realized we no longer understand? Why weren't they changed in the last... 50+ years or so? Tournament standards? Fear of insulting tradition? The old masters created and modified kata, but we're afraid of it? Or maybe too proud to recognize we need to change those kata if we have to use them, to profit from them?

Take care.

[*] Not enough of it, or we wouldn't have this problem. So, either they didn't think it was important enough or they weren't good enough teachers. Or maybe one led to the other. Man, isn't that another can of worms...!

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